From Symbiosis to Quasi-Autonomy: China’s Evolving Civil-Military Relations

From Symbiosis to Quasi-Autonomy: China’s Evolving Civil-Military Relations

The traditional understanding of China’s civil-military relations is that the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was historically symbiotic, without functional differentiation or institutional boundaries based on technical specialization. This kind of symbiosis, according to political scientists Amos Perlmutter and William LeoGrande, can be attributed to the legacy of the communists’ guerrilla war in China, which was “a form of politico-military combat in which the fusion of political and military elites is virtually inevitable, and in which the governing of liberated territories is a function performed largely by the guerrilla army itself.” Also associated with this legacy is Mao Zedong’s reliance, as leader of the CCP, on a holistic strategy of manpower-based mass mobilization rather than functional and technical specialization-based expertise for his revolutionary agenda and post-revolutionary development. A product of civil war and revolution, the PLA was naturally an integral part of Mao’s strategy.

This party-army symbiosis, however, did not imply a high degree of congruence or consensus among China’s civilian and military leaders. On the contrary, political competition and rivalries were rampant during the Mao years and immediately afterward. But rather than taking place along the civil-military institutional boundaries, these competitions and rivalries were characterized by highly personalized leadership factions or cliques that cut across party-army boundaries. That is, a few political-military factions, each a symbiotic cohort of both party and PLA leaders with origins in a few pre-1949 guerrilla bases or “field armies,” engaged in a zero-sum struggle for political power against one another. Such power struggles usually resulted in witch hunts for “anti-party cliques” and factional purges. So party-army symbiosis implied that major party leaders could easily mobilize their personal networks of supporters from within the PLA for intraparty power struggles, and that the primary role of the PLA was to participate in such struggles -- that is, to participate in domestic politics.

The rise of Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death in the late-1970s, however, led to the replacement of Mao’s revolutionary agenda with a nation-building project of “four modernizations”: modernizing industry, agriculture, science and technology, and national defense. Expertise based on a functional and technical division of labor was indispensable for achieving this modernization. As a result, the PLA was finally brought back to the barracks and downsized by a million billets, and functional differentiation and technical specialization were promoted. Institutional boundaries between the party and the army became clearer, so that the latter could enjoy more institutional autonomy to pursue its functional and technical expertise. This trend also suggests that newly established civil-military institutional boundaries should make it more difficult for party leaders to mobilize political support from within the PLA for power struggles, because functional and institutional identity and priorities now take precedence over personal and factional ones.

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